A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.
Folklore is a funny thing. Many of the tales are old stories, passed down through the generations orally until someone, a collector of sorts, decided to write them down.
Some of these describe tales of a place, legends to explain its existence or creation. Others tell of ghosts or beasties, things to chill the listeners huddled around the fireplace as a terrifying yarn is woven. A few are really special, and explain a historical event as seen by the local population; history in its rawest form, as these are not accounts written by the victors, but those that saw it.
As can be imagined, these accounts have changed over the years. Each retelling is like a game of Chinese whispers, and the storyteller would have added, removed, forgotten, and blended, stirring the ingredients like a fine stew.
Unfortunately, inaccuracies begin to creep into the accounts as a result of these retellings over time. As a result, folklore is often disregarded by some historians in piecing together what happened in our past.
This story is an account of when the Vikings came to Scotland, and includes a glaring mistake; it features a silver bullet. Perhaps the original tale featured a silver arrow, or we might consider that this description was added many years later. The original version appears in "Clan Traditions and Popular Tales of the Western Highlands and Islands" which contains a collection of stories that were told orally through the communities of this region and recorded by the Reverend John Gregorson Campbell, Minister of Tiree .
Regardless of the technological blooper, it is a dramatic story, painting a rugged picture of life during this age. So without further ado, let's get on with telling this tale.
The Dark, or Pitch-Pine, Daughter of the Norse King, and How She Thinned the Woods of Lochaber
Long ago, the Norsemen came here to lay claim and take possession of the land. Their visits were frequent and numerous to the west coast and its islands, and their reputation was terrible. Famous they were for their indulgence in every manner of cruel vandalism and wanton destruction, and they would slaughter people wherever they landed.
The Norsemen were a rough band that were bold and courageous, hardy yet peremptory and unscrupulous. They described themselves as merchants, but woe betide any that displeased them with their bargaining. The Norsemen had their ways to make a deal more favourable for them through cunning and intimidation. Should any folk not wish to trade, the Norsemen would not mind; they just took and fought fiercely against any that opposed them.
Clever as a pack of wolves, they hunted together as such. Yet the bite of their swords and axes were not the only means they had to do battle. It was believed that they practiced witchcraft and had unhallowed learning among them, with charms and enchantments to outdo us gentlefolk.
The Norse King's eldest daughter was famous for her knowledge of the Black Arts. It was said that she was a seidr woman, skilled in magic. No accident or mischance fell upon her friends, and it was believed that she had a hand in the destruction of enemies. She was able to influence luck and fortune, good or ill, and was famed both at home and in lands abroad.
Much of a man's fortune in these times was in cattle. The Norse King need not worry about his herd, as his cunning daughter had great knowledge of the dairy and of cows and cattle, and was sought out whenever there was a problem with the herd. There was no spell that could be cast against her father's fold that she could not dispel or avert.
Any ill or injury that was suffered among the kine could be cured by her hand, with the stricken beast being fully cured by her skills. The milk would never go dry, as through herb craft she ensured that it always flowed. It was said that the lowing of cattle and the cry of calves was to her the sweetest music, and would never ignore the call of her father's cows, even if she was in the deepest northern forests.
A great deal of charms and invocations were known to her, and the flowers of the meadows and woods were as familiar to her as grain on straw is to you or me. She knew all of the properties of all things that grew, and how to best to apply them. There was no tree, shrub, or bush that she was not familiar with in putting to use in her arts.
The Norse King's kingdom was clothed in a pine forest, and the land then was as famous as it is now for the fine quality of the wood, which brought much wealth to his lands. They held a great monopoly on the trading in timber, which had filled the King's coffers until they spilled over.
At one time, the Norsemen arrived in Scotland to take possession of the land and divide it between themselves. The arrived at the pinewood of Lochabar and saw that it was growing so fast and extending so far, that it might even be greater than the black forests of Sweden that had brought them so much wealth.
Driven back by the brave Scottish men, they set sail for home where they told the Norse King about this mighty forest. They advised that something had to be done, for if this pine wood was allowed to grow and remain in the hands of the men of Scotland, it would reduce the value of their northern forest. Much wealth had their pine woods brought to them, and they could ill afford losing business to competitors. The Norsemen after all, considered themselves to be merchants.
The Norse King summoned his eldest daughter. Using her powers and knowledge, she advised her father on the best method of thinning and destroying the Scottish forest. She explained that for the plan to succeed, she must travel to Scotland herself, as she must be the bearer of the method. The King reluctantly agreed, and so she made her preparations for the voyage.
From the gifts she possessed, neither sea nor land, air nor earth could hinder the Norse King's progress until she had accomplished her purpose. Her ship cut through the stormy seas as if on a gentle lake and she made good time on her voyage to the western side of Scotland.
When she reached Lochaber, she observed the forest growing thick about the mountainsides. Invoking her powers, she kindled a fire in the selvedge on the edge of her dress and then began to go through the woods. The carpet of dry pine needles across the forest floor soon caught alight, snapping and crackling about her. As the smoke thickened, she took to the air to continue with her destruction. She could travel in the clouds as well as on the ground, and she ascended and whirled in the air, sending sparks of fire flying from her dress.
The wind blew the flames hither and thither, setting the pine trees alight. With their highly flammable resin, soon the whole of the region was ablaze. The sound of splitting and popping wood and the roar of flames filled the air, and the Norse King's daughter laughed gleefully as the wind whipped up funnels of fire that whirled through the forest.
The land was darkened by the smoke which was so thick that the folk could hardly see before them. Ash rained down upon them as the mountainsides, once lush and green with thick ancient forest became a waste of charred tree trunks and scorched earth. The Norse sorceress was so blackened by the smoke and soot of the fiery furnace which surrounded her, she was named "Dark", or "Pitch Pine".
The local people gathered to watch the incredible but terrifying scene. She flew up and down about the forest with such speed that the could not grasp her or prevent the flames from sparking off her dress. They were at a loss as to what to do and watched with great sadness as their mighty forest lit up the sky at night with an unholy orange glow.
At last, a wise man came forth. He was learned and cunning and knew about the Norse King's daughter's skill and fascination with cows. He advised the folk to collect a herd of cattle in a fold. He told them that when the Norse King's daughter paused from her flying about, she would be able to hear the lowing of the cattle, and would not be able to resist them. When she descended, they must fire at her with a silver bullet which would render her to a faggot of bones.
This the people did and began to gather a herd. Following the trail of the Norse King's daughter, they set the herd to rest in the centre of Kintail, in the northwest Highlands. There they saw the witch dancing above the trees over the peaks between Loch Duich and Loch Cluanie.
She was unable to ignore the lowing of these beasts, fearing that her flames had trapped them. She descended in a fiery swoop to investigate. When at last she was within gun-shot, they fired at her with a silver bullet as the wise man had told them. With a cry, she clutched her chest and fell. Her fiery dress became ash and she became bones, her terrible fire left to burn itself out naturally.
The men took her remains and carried them back to Lochaber, and she was buried in Achnacarry with special care and charms so that even dead she could do no more harm or injury to them. The person that recalled the story in 1880 had said that he could still put his foot on the place where she was buried.
The Norse King waited for his daughter to return, and grew anxious that she had not come back or sent any news. Finally, tidings came of the disaster that had befallen his eldest girl and stricken with grief, the King sent a ship and crew to bring her remains back home.
As they reached the shores, the women of Lochaber used incantations of their own to destroy the vessel. The boat was wrecked at the entrance to Loch Eil, and all souls lost. More ships were sent and met the same fate.
Finally, the Norse King sent out his most powerful fleet; an armada of sea stallions filled with his best warriors and most experienced sailing men. Their first mission was to weaken the magic of the Scottish folk before moving inland to recover the Norse King's daughter's remains.
They headed to the island of Iona, where it is said that magic was drawn from the fairy wells upon the hill there. The waters of these wells held a power that could call a wind from any direction when needed. In peaceful times this would help the fishermen sail out to the herring shoals, but in times such as these, they could be used to whip up a tempest wherever it was wanted.
The islanders just needed to draw water from the wells and empty it in the direction that the wind was needed. The Norsemen knew of this place and its magical waters, and the likeliness that they had been used to ruin their kinsmen before them. If these wells were dried up, then safe passage would be secured, not just for their fleet, but for invaders thereafter.
When the islanders saw the Viking ships approaching, they hurried to the fairy wells and began to draw up the water. Nearly emptying the wells themselves, the storm that was called up was so violent that Norse fleet was tossed about and ripped to pieces. The ships were torn apart and hurled onto the shores beneath Fairy Hill on Iona. The power and might of the Norsemen were broken.
With his finest ships and warriors lost, the Norse King had not the means to muster a new fleet, nor the gold to pay for more men. His ambitions of conquest were ruined. Never again did they return to trouble the people of these lands.
 Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, Clan Traditions and Popular Tales of the Western Highlands and Islands - ISBN - 978-1294405221
© 2015 Pollyanna Jones
Jonas Rodrigo on July 21, 2015:
Good story. Norse culture and witches have always caught my eye. Seeing them together in a story is a fresh and refreshing take on the idea. Great hub.
geowend on May 04, 2015:
Silver bullet probably was reference originaly to sling amunition.
Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on April 14, 2015:
Thank you! It's an interesting one, and certainly captures the imagination.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 14, 2015:
A fine story of a witchy woman. Enjoyed!
Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on April 04, 2015:
Thank you dreamermeg. I was wondering what inspired it. Perhaps a forest fire occurred at the same time as a Norse invasion? Or maybe the forest was set on fire the old fashioned way - the sap in pine trees is very flammable.
dreamermeg on April 04, 2015:
Fantastic story. Wonder if it is based on a volcanic firestorm or something similar?